Good hair, bad hair


I recently saw Chris Rock’s excellent documentary, ‘Good Hair’, and didn’t know how much women (he specifically focused on women in his piece) spent on getting their hair done!  Nor was I aware at the depths people go to get good hair, those who want it on their own heads and those who purchase it to sell to others. The exploitative side of a good ‘do can reach the point where it  rates up there with an international crime on the magnitude of human trafficking. I strongly recommend getting a copy of the movie and watching it.

I came away with a greater appreciation for the ‘hijab’ for Muslim women after watching this movie because of two very striking comments made in it.  One was my Maya Angelou who said, ‘hair is a woman’s glory’ and Rock’s statement at the end of the film, ‘it’s not what you put on your head it’s what you put in your head that counts’ that seem to make the point that is made by women who wear, out of a sense of conviction, the head scarf.

Modesty is not just in appearance but in how you shape that appearance is an essential element of the “good hair” debate as well.  Take the photo above.  I found it on a forum where someone was asking for a barber who could cut his hair like the picture and he went on to say, ‘Price does not matter just want a good haircut’ which could almost mean anything! Rock et. co explored the debate how can people “afford” to do so much to/with their hair in this time of economic uncertainty and the implied answers are as stark as the given ones.  It’s scary what we are willing to do to get ‘good hair’.

Quebec’s witch hunt against niqabi minority


(Our neighbors to the North have been struck with Islamophobia too)

Governments intervene against the religious wishes of Jehovah’s Witness families to give blood transfusions to save the lives of their kin. The Quebec government wants to intervene to deny health care to women whose religious wish is to wear the niqab.

In Saudi Arabia, Iran and parts of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, police or vigilante militias crack down on women not wearing the niqab or the burqa. In Quebec, authorities want to crack down on women who do.

Quebec officials have already chased down one niqab-wearing woman to oust her from a second French language class after she had been hounded out of her first. The bureaucrats are emulating the gendarmes of autocrats Kemal Ataturk of Turkey in the 1920s and the first Shah of Iran in the 1930s who persecuted women wearing either the niqab or the hijab.

It is scary when a state feels compelled to keep women either covered or uncovered.

It is scarier when majorities in democracies feel threatened by a minority – in this case, a tiny minority within the Muslim minority. Or feel the need to crush an isolated religious or cultural practice. Had such attitudes prevailed in an earlier era, we may not have been blessed today with Hutterites, Orthodox Jews, Sikhs and others in the rich religious tapestry of Canada.

Across Europe and now sadly in Quebec, populations and governments are in a tizzy over a few dozen niqabi women. Sadder still, Quebec is not only out of step with the rest of Canada but has taken a bigoted leap ahead of Europe, the historic home of Islamophobia.

In France – where out of 5 million Muslims, 367 wear the niqab (as counted by the domestic intelligence service, no less) – a parliamentary panel has pondered the issue for a year and suggested a ban from schools and hospitals but nowhere else.

In Denmark – where out of 100,000 Muslims, there are less than 200 niqabis (as estimated by the ministry of social affairs), the government is still mulling a ban.

In Quebec, less than 25 women are said to wear the niqab – of whom only 10 turned up last year at the Montreal office of the provincial health board out of 118,000 visitors.

Yet the obsession with the niqab continues. On the day Jean Charest tabled his anti-niqab bill, Hydro Quebec’s $3.2 billion deal to take over NB Power and gain access to the lucrative U.S. market collapsed – with nary a public concern.

His bill calls not only for showing the face for the legitimate purposes of a photo ID and security. It also bans niqabis from working for, or even receiving services from, government and the broader public sector. These taxpayers may be denied all schooling, including French language instruction, and all non-emergency health care, including regular checkups.

Charest rationalized it on the basis of gender equity, the secular nature of the state, the need to integrate immigrants, and the importance of personal interaction. Except that:

The giant crucifix in the National Assembly will stay.

Property and other tax breaks given the churches will remain, including for the Catholic Church, where women must remain in the pews and not ascend to the pulpit.

Niqabi women will be driven out of the public sphere, end up with less personal interaction with others and be ghettoized. It is a strange way to advance gender equity.

It is argued, as by Nicolas Sarkozy in France, that banning the niqab is not anti-Islamic, since it may not be a religious requirement, as opined by a senior Egyptian cleric last year. We elect politicians not to propound fatwas but to implement secular, democratic laws in an equitable manner for one and all. As for those enamoured of the authoritarian ways of Egypt, they are free to move there.

We are witnessing collective hysteria, prompting even liberal governments to cave in. It was not a pretty sight to see Charest, a Liberal, competing for headlines with Ann Coulter, the Muslim-baiting neo-con from America.

That’s democracy in action, it can be said. But we have seen many ugly manifestations of the popular will before. Targeting the niqabis may not be in the same league as past Canadian sins against some minorities but history should provide us with the perspective to pause.

Islam is here to stay, so let’s move on


amalAmericans, and those who live within its borders, come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and while some of the American dream and the meaning of the words, ‘send me your tired and your poor; your huddled masses yearning to be free’ has not always turned out the way those huddled masses wanted at the time, America has been a largely successful experiment.

It is however, a work in progress, continually defined, reshaped, molded in a way that meets the needs of most of the 300 million plus who live within its borders.  America has seen all sorts of people come and go.  Many have blended and integrated themselves into the social fabric, indistinguishable from the whole, while others have chosen to retain their identities.  The common thread has always been the rule of law that’s kept the entire cloth from unravelling.

Sure there are times in the Nation’s history we can point to when the administration of the law has not been equitable, but social agitation (something sorely missed in today’s citizenry) always corrected that inequity which resulted in a better mix of brown, whites, reds, and yellows.  We discovered along the way that it wasn’t necessary to lose those colors or attitudes in the elixir of America; that sometimes it was healthy to keep them distinguished not seperated, visible, not homogenized, ‘in order to form a more perfect union.’

So it is that now we have black, white, Jew, Gentile, Muslim unbeliever living, perhaps askew, but in relative peace and with the knowledge they can take their grievance to the Law should the need arise.  This is what happened to Amal Hersi  a Somali American Muslim woman who was told service at a credit union was only possible if she blended and forsake her Muslim identity.

For Amal this was not an option, so she took her case to a higher authority, in this instance the people in charge of the credit union.  No doubt the employee of the bank forgot their roots, forgot that despite the finely coiffed hair and contemporary styled clothes they wore that day, they most likely had an acestor, perhaps not too far in their past who looked like Amal and chose to stay that way…….or not.  Most likely that distant relative decided when he/she ran into an obdurate public servant bent on defining their place in the American fabric they weren’t going to bend and that act of resistance made it possible for Amal to refuse today, which made the quilt that much more pretty and pliable for the common good.

Muslim women in the West have defined their role as one of modesty wrapped in clothes they’ve chosen to express their identity.  In most cases, if not all, it is their conscious choice to wear hijab just as they also choose to obey the law and just as there is no penalty for embracing the latter, neither should there be for the former.  The officials of the credit union, more in touch with the spirit of the Law than the wayward employee who started this all, recognized that instantly and issued a statement which said in part:

Navy Federal values and respects all its members. Working with the law enforcement community, we have recently implemented a policy to make sure we can positively identify everyone we serve in our many branches.

Navy Federal weighed very carefully the need to accommodate religious and cultural customs, as well as medical conditions. Our policy does not prohibit nor discourage the use of headscarves, and will make sure it’s thoroughly understood to all employees.

I salute them and nothing further needs to be addressed to them. To the employee who lost her way I would encourage a quick visual primer on American history. Perhaps they will see someone they know or someone who looks like them. While they’re at it they’ll most likely see someone who looks like Amal Hersi too.

How refreshing


to read someone write about Islam and not be apologetic, and especially when it is a woman! My wildest dream is that this woman be appointed to a cabinet level position in an Obama administration. My typing that probably insures his defeat among this widely hysteric Islamophobic electorate, but I don’t care and I don’t think the author of this piece does either, so here goes. (hat tip to Taalib)

Spare Me the Sermon On Muslim Women By Mohja Kahf

Crimson chiffon, silver lamé or green silk: Which scarf to wear today? My veil collection is 64 scarves and growing. The scarves hang four or five to a row on a rack in my closet, and elation fills me when I open the door to this beautiful array. Last week, I chose a particularly nice scarf to slip on for the Eid al-Fitr festivities marking the end of the month of Ramadan.

It irks me that I even have to say this: Being a Muslim woman is a joyful thing.

My first neighbor in Arkansas borrowed my Quran and returned it, saying, “I’m glad I’m not a Muslim woman.” Excuse me, but a woman with Saint Paul in her religious heritage has no place feeling superior to a Muslim woman, as far as woman-affirming principles are concerned. Maybe no worse, if I listen to Christian feminists, but certainly no better.

Blessings abound for me as a Muslim woman: The freshness of ablution is mine, and the daily meditation zone of five prayers that involve graceful, yoga-like movements, performed in prayer attire. Prayer scarves are a chapter in themselves, cool and comforting as bedsheets. They lie folded in the velveteen prayer rug when not in use: two lightweight muslin pieces, the long drapey headcover and the roomy gathered skirt. I fling open the top piece, and it billows like summer laundry, a lace-edged meadow. I slip into the bottom piece to cover my legs for prayer time because I am wearing shorts around the house today.

These create a tent of tranquility. The serene spirit sent from God is called by a feminine name, “sakinah,” in the Quran, and I understand why some Muslim women like to wear their prayer clothes for more than prayer, to take that sakinah into the world with them. I, too, wear a (smaller) version of the veil when I go out. What a loss it would be for me not to have in my life this alternating structure, of covering outdoors and uncovering indoors. I take pleasure in preparing a clean, folded set for a houseguest, the way home-decor mavens lay elegant plump towels around a bathroom to give it a relaxing feel.

Tassled turquoise cotton and flowered peach crepe flutter as I pull out a black-and-ivory striped headscarf for the day. When I was 22 and balked at buying a $30 paisley scarf, my best friend told me, “I never scrimp on scarves. If people are going to make a big deal of it, it may as well look good.”

I embraced that principle, too, even when I was a scratch-poor graduate student. Today I sort my scarves, always looking to replace the frayed ones and to find missing colors, my collection shrinking and expanding, dynamic, bright: The blue-and-yellow daisy print is good with jeans, the incandescent purple voile for a night on the town, the gray houndstooth solidly professional, the white chambray anytime.

As beautiful as veils are, they are not the best part of being a Muslim woman — and many Muslim women in Islamic countries don’t veil. The central blessing of Islam to women is that it affirms their spiritual equality with men, a principle stated over and over in the Quran, on a plane believers hold to be untouched by the social or legalistic “women in Islam” concerns raised by other parts of the Scripture, in verses parsed endlessly by patriarchal interpreters as well as Muslim feminists and used by Islamophobes to “prove” Islam’s sexism. This is how most believing Muslim women experience God: as the Friend who is beyond gender, not as the Father, not as the Son, not inhabiting a male form, or any form.

And the reasons for being a joyful Muslim woman go beyond the spiritual. Marriage is a contract in Islam, not a sacrament. The prenup is not some new invention; it’s the standard Muslim format. I can put whatever I want in it, but Muslims never get credit for that. Or for having mahr, the bridegift that goes from the man to the woman — not to her family, but to her, for her own private use. A mahr has to have significant value — a year’s salary, say. And if patriarchal customs have overridden Islam and whittled away this blessing in many Muslim locales, it’s still there, available, in the law. Hey, I got mine (cash, partly deferred because my husband was broke when we married; like a loan to him, owed to me whenever I want to claim it) — and I was married in Saudi Arabia, a country whose personal-status laws are drawn from the most conservative end of the Muslim spectrum.

I had to sign my name indicating my consent, or the marriage contract would not have been valid under Saudi Islamic law. And, of course, I chose whom to marry. Every Muslim girl in the conservative circle of my youth chose her husband. We just did it our way, a conservative Muslim way, and we did it without this nonsensical Western custom of teenage dating. My friends Salma and Magda chose at 16 and 17: Salma to marry boy-next-door Muhammad, with whom she grew up, and Magda to marry a doctor 10 years her senior who came courting from half a world away. Both sisters have careers, one as a counselor, one as a school principal, and both are still vibrantly married and vibrantly Muslim, their kids now in college.

I held out until I was 18, making my parents beat back suitors at the door until I was good and ready. And here I am, still married to the guy I finally let in the door, 22 years (some of them not even dysfunctional) later. My cousin, on the other hand, broke off a marriage she contracted (but did not consummate) at 16 and chose another man. Another childhood friend, Zeynab, chose four times and is looking for Mr. Fifth. Her serial monogamy is nothing new or radical; she didn’t pick up the idea from reading Cosmo or from the “liberating” influence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. It’s simply what a lot of women in early Muslim history did, in 7th- and 8th-century Arabia.

And would you guess that we’ve also been freer to divorce and remarry than Christian women have been for most of history? In medieval times, when Christian authorities were against divorce and remarriage, this was seen as another Islamic abomination. Now that divorce and remarriage are popular in the West, Muslims don’t get credit for having had that flexibility all along. We just can’t win with the Muslim-haters.

Here’s another one: Medieval Christianity excoriated Islam for being orgiastic, which seems to mean that Muslims didn’t lay a guilt trip on hot sex (at least within what were deemed licit relationships). Now that hot sex is all the rage in the post-sexual revolution West, you’d think Muslims would get some credit for the pro-sex attitude of Islam — but no. The older stereotype has been turned on its head, and in the new one, we’re the prudes. Listen, we’re the only monotheistic faith I know with an actual legal rule that the wife has a right to orgasm.

Of course, I’m still putting in my time struggling for a more woman-affirming interpretation of Islam and in criticizing Muslim misogyny (which at times is almost as bad as American misogyny), but let me take a moment to celebrate some of the good stuff. Under Islamic law, custody of minor children always goes first to the mother. The Quran doesn’t blame Eve. Literacy for women is highly encouraged by the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. Breast-feeding is a woman’s choice and a means for her to create family ties independent of male lineage, as nursing creates legally recognized family relationships under Islamic law. Rapists are punishable by death in Islamic law (and yes, an atavistic part of me applauds that death penalty), which they certainly are not in any Western legal code. Birth control allowed in Islamic law? Check. Masturbation? Let’s just say former surgeon general Joycelyn Elders’s permissive stance on that practice is not unknown among classical and modern Muslim jurists. Abortion? Again, allowances exist — even Muslims seem not to remember that.

It’s easy to forget that Muslims are not inherently more sexist than folks in other religions. Muslim societies may lag behind on some issues that women in certain economically advanced, non-Muslim societies have resolved after much effort, but on other issues, Muslim women’s options run about the same as those of women all over the world. And in some areas of life, Muslim women are better equipped by their faith tradition for autonomy and dignity.

There are “givens” that I take for granted as a Muslim woman that women of other faiths had to struggle to gain. For example, it took European and American women centuries to catch up to Islamic law on a woman’s fully equal right to own property. And it’s not an airy abstraction; it’s a right Muslim women have practiced, even in Saudi Arabia, where women own businesses, donate land for schools and endow trusts, just as they did in 14th-century Egypt, 9th-century Iraq and anywhere else Islamic law has been in effect.

Khadija was the boss of her husband, our beloved Prophet Muhammad, hiring him during her fourth widowhood to run caravans for her successful business; he caught her eye, and she proposed marriage to him. Fatima is the revered mother figure of Shiite Islam, our lady of compassion, possessed of a rich emotional trove for us. Her daughter Zainab is the classic figure of high moral protest, the Muslim Antigone, shaking her fist at the corrupt caliph who killed her brother, her tomb a shrine of comfort for millions of the pious. Saints, queens, poets, scribes and scholars adorn the history of Muslim womanhood.

In modern times, Muslim women have been heads of state five times in Muslim-majority countries, elected democratically by popular vote (in Bangladesh twice and also in Turkey, Indonesia and Pakistan). And I’m not saying that a woman president is necessarily a women’s president, but how many times has a woman been president of the United States?

Yet even all that gorgeous history pales when I open my closet door for the evening’s pick: teal georgette, pink-and-beige plaid, creamy fringed wool or ice-blue organza? God, why would anyone assume I would want to give up such beauty? I love being a Muslim woman. And I’m always looking for my next great polka-dot scarf.

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